The Milwaukee Brewers had an open competition between three players for their two Opening Day catching spots entering spring training, but only two of those players garnered much attention over the winter. Andrew Susac was a former top-100 prospect that came from San Francisco in the Will Smith trade, and most figured that he would finally get a chance to show what he could do without being blocked by Buster Posey. Then there was Jett Bandy, who the organization seemingly went out of their way to praise throughout the winter after he was picked up from the Angels in exchange for Martin Maldonado and a minor leaguer.
The man who ultimately wound up shining the brightest behind the plate in 2017, however, was an unheralded 30 year old rookie. Manny Pina joined the professional ranks way back in 2004, when the Texas Rangers signed as an international free agent. Before Pina joined the Brewers as the PTBNL in the 2015 Francisco Rodriguez trade, he spent a dozen years bouncing around with four organizations (Rangers, Royals, Mariners, Tigers), developing a reputation as a defensive specialist while appearing in just 5 MLB games with the Royals between 2011-12.
Pina never really put together very encouraging offensive numbers in the minor leagues until 2015 with Detroit, when after making some swing changes he posted an .840 OPS with the Tigers’ AAA affiliate. He carried that success over into 2016 with Colorado Springs, where he compiled an .877 OPS in 63 games before earning his first call-up with the Brewers. He finished the 2016 season by batting .254/.346/.394 with 2 homers in 81 plate appearances down the stretch.
Even with that strong audition, it took an injury to Susac in spring training to ensure that Pina began 2017 on the big league roster, the first time he made an MLB Opening Day roster in his professional career. He began the year by splitting time with Jett Bandy, but eventually the pair began going in opposite directions. Bandy struggled on defense and a lengthy drought at the plate ultimately lead to a demotion to the minors. Pina, on the other hand, brandished a quality glove and strong arm behind the plate all season while providing well above-average offensive production for the catching position.
Manny wound up appearing in 107 games and taking 359 turns at the plate during his first full big league season, batting .279/.327/.424 with 9 home runs, 21 doubles, and 2 stolen bases for a 94 wRC+. Pina’s aggressive approach at the plate didn’t portend to many walks, but he posted a hard-hit rate of 34.1% to help bolster a lofty .339 BABIP despite less-than-stellar speed on the bases. Pina’s never been much of a home run hitter, but he had a penchant for making them come at important times during 2017:
Even more impressive than Pina’s solid stick this season was his tremendous defense behind the plate. We were spoiled as fans by being able to watch Martin Maldonado’s cannon for the last several seasons prior to 2017, but Manny Pina’s right arm could probably give Maldy’s a run for its money. Manny gunned down 36% of the runners that dared to try and steal a base against him this season, and he tied for the league lead by picking 7 runners off on the bases over the course of the year. His pitch framing has never been much better than average, and that held true with -1.0 framing runs this season per Baseball Prospectus. On the whole, though, Pina’s +13 defensive runs saved ranked 2nd in the MLB this season, behind only Cincinnati’s Tucker Barnhart.
Pina’s bat faded a little bit down the stretch as his workload behind the plate increased, but his defense remained stellar all season long. He wound up missing the last week and a half of the season after injuring his thumb, and it was quite apparent how much the team missed his presence behind the plate while summer waiver claim Stephen Vogt took over the bulk of the catching duties.
I predicted that Pina would become a solid starting catcher in my “Bold Predictions” post way back in Spring Training, and he was just that in 2017. He registered 2.0 fWAR, 2.0 WARP, and 2.6 bWAR for an average of 2.20 wins above replacement between the three outlets. After his highly successful 2017 campaign, Pina figures to be back in the saddle as the #1 catcher when 2018 begins. Hopefully his age-30 breakout won’t prove to be a flash in the pan, and Pina will be able to continue providing value behind the plate for the Brewers for the foreseeable future.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs